Arts & Culture » Dance

Samurai soap opera

by Paul Parish

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Yuri Possokhov's <i>RAkU.</i><br> Photo: Erik Tomasson
Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Yuri Possokhov's RAkU.
Photo: Erik Tomasson  

We have a hit on our hands. The entire floor of the Opera House rose to cheer the ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan at the end of RAkU, a new piece by the company's Bolshoi-trained Resident Choreographer Yuri Possokhov, which had its world premiere here last Thursday night. I missed the opening but saw the ballet at its third performance Saturday night, when  the audience was again swept away. I did not share their response and am withholding judgment until I can see it again. It's clear that Possokhov has triumphed by creating a new work for the strengths of Tan, whose delicate figure, astonishing flexibility, and enormous tensile strength is contrasted in the most striking terms with a cohort of very muscular men (warriors, a monk, a prince) in a world that looks like a samurai soap opera distilled down to 30 minutes.

The partnering is athletic and physically very exciting. Damian Smith is handsome, sensitive, and powerful, the perfect foil for Tan's astonishing extensions, which open and sweep into spiraling curves almost as frightening as they are beautiful. She epitomizes for SF Ballet the wave of hypermobility in contemporary pointe-work, which fascinates with the wire-drawn contortions achievable by dancers who move from the core of the core and seem to have almost no meat on their bones. Tan's strength and bravery are set off against the broad-shouldered, thick-chested, manly-thighed corps of warriors (whose costumes look more like the Greco-Roman soldiers of Spartacus than they do Samurai), in a hieratic ceremony in which they present her a sword and a casket amidst ritualized moves that include tossing her high overhead and catching her.

The Bolshoi, where Possokhov was a star/protege of director Yuri Grigorovich 30 years ago, has been a great source of creative energy since the fall of Communism. Possokhov is, along with Alexei Ratmansky, one of the rising choreographers with the deepest, most idiomatic grounding in the classical vocabulary, but you can see him chafing at the restrictions the Soviets placed on self-expression. Every new ballet he makes seems to be an attempt to forge something meaningful using the old materials in a new way. Thus he's created a samurai world using the powerful, deep-thighed, knee-walking steps of Russian folk dance that he grew up with.

RAkU deals with a cultural disaster for Japan, in which a demented monk burned down the Golden Temple of Kyoto, "the most beautiful building in Japan," which did happen in 1955, and has been fictionalized many times, most notably in a breakout novel by Mishima and in movies. Mishima's monk hates himself because of  ambitions he despises, family pressures, and, most of all, he is himself ugly and turns that against anything beautiful.

So the piece is obviously about fire and torment, characters being pulled apart by conflicting emotions and by others' projections onto them. The monk (Pascal Molat) is almost Dostoyevskian in his complexity, and his thoughts and dreams are nearly as real as the world around him. So it makes sense to have the stage flooded with projections, which were designed and stunningly realized by Alexander V. Nichols: they flicker onto free-standing columns and piers, which suggest the architecture of the building but also unfold to disclose visionary creatures, such as the ballerina and her consort. At times the projections devour the characters and the building, especially in the burning.

I admire Possokhov's artistic integrity and find the ballet impressive, but cryptic. For starters, why is RAkU spelled like that? Why is the Morse code for "I love you" embedded in the score? Certainly the closing moments, in which Tan opens the casket and pours the ashes it contains over herself in a kind of immolation, then subsides into a solo dance-meditation of Butoh-like writhing, bring the ballet to a stunning conclusion; but I'm left puzzled, disturbed and unsatisfied.

RAkU has marvelous costumes by Mark Zappone, lighting by Christopher Dennis, and gorgeous music composed in collaboration with the choreographer by Shinji Eshima, a member of the SF Ballet orchestra. It is the central work on a triple bill with two masterpieces, Sir Frederick Ashton's Symphonic Variations (1946) and George Balanchine's Symphony in C (1947), which are themselves worth the price of admission and were both beautifully danced, especially considering there were wholesale alterations of cast due to illness. The new corps member Nicole Ciapponi distinguished herself with a debut in a role that she learned, according to reports, that afternoon. Sarah Van Patten was especially beautiful in the Ashton, Courtney Elizabeth and Taras Domitro were brilliant in Bizet's Symphony .

Van Patten and her partner Tiit Helimets were the principal couple in a Wednesday-night showing of Giselle which was one of the very finest your reporter has ever seen. The whole company rose to the occasion, with fabulous performing by the Wilis, especially Dores Andre and Dana Genshaft as the demi-soloist Wilis; the newcomer Daniel Baker made a tremendous first impression as the blunt peasant whom Giselle does not love, whom the Wilis make dance until he dies. But it was the romantic couple that was so impressive. Helimets danced nobly, downplaying his technique, making each entrechat and jete an address to Giselle; they fell in love before our eyes, through their dancing. This is really romantic, and it makes a ballet that's 150 years old look brand-new.

Giselle begs to be parodied, to be brought back in other ways; but the real thing abides as well, and last week, we saw it in one of its great manifestations. The soul is at risk in this ballet, the Wilis  represent all of us who have had our longings go unfulfilled or mocked, and the corps of SFB know they've got a real emotional charge to carry. They're not just doing the steps, it was life or death, and it was transcendent.

Both Giselle and Program 2 alternate; the run ends this Sunday night with Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada in Giselle.

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